A Wake-up Call for New Jersey Democrats


This morning the sun rose on a New Jersey where the race for Governor between the incumbent and his energetic challenger former Assemblyman Jack Ciatarrelli was still too close to call. This came as a total surprise to the corporate national news media’s political analysts who had flagged the race for Governor in Virginia as the only real contest to watch last night.

But long time Essex County based community organizer Larry Hamm, who ran in the 2020 Democratic Primary against Sen. Cory Booker, was anything but surprised by what daybreak brought the Garden State. He had been worried about the potential collapse of New Jersey urban base in northern and southern Jersey that left Gov. Murphy just a few thousands ahead in race all the pollsters said was his.

Nationally, and here in New Jersey, that’s exactly what happened in 2016 when several hundred thousand voters of color, that had been so enthusiastic about voting for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, stayed home in 2016, helping Trump flip states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“My concern all along was not that the Governor wouldn’t win the urban Black and Latino vote but that they wouldn’t turnout in sufficient numbers to overcome the places in the state where Trump had made gains in 2020 over 2016,” Hamm said. “Generally, on the left we underestimate Donald Trump and the Republicans. There’s lip service but we don’t take action.”

Hamm says Jersey Democrats ignored Trump’s Jersey in roads at their peril. In the 2020 election, Trump once again carried Ocean, Cape May, Salem, Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties, and added to his vote totals from 2016 in Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Gloucester and Mercer counties.

Hamm continued. “When I went into my polling place at Trinity Church in Montclair it scared me because there were only two to three voters there and I knew how important this election was—this was in the same place that in 2008, 2012 and in 2020, there lines of voters waiting to vote for Obama and then Biden.”

Consider Essex County, where Newark is so critical to Democratic vote totals, that as of this morning Murphy had close to 112,000 compared to President Biden’s 267,000 last year. While there is always a drop off from the Presidential cycle to the Governor’s race, consider Ciatarrelli’s 40,500 vote total, compared to Trump’s 75,500 last year.  The former Assemblyman clearly did a better job engaging his base to limit the expected slide in turnout from a high energy Presidential election year.

In Passaic County it was much the same story with even potentially more seismic results. Murphy got almost 53,000 compared to Ciatarrelli’s 51,000. Last year, Biden beat Trump 129,100 to 92,000.

Over in Hudson County, Murphy’s drew close to 100,000 fewer votes than Biden. A similar slide occurred in Camden.

Hamm founded the Newark based People’s Organization for Progress, which focuses on police accountability as well as for social and economic justice issues. He maintains the Democratic Party needs to gear up to address the issues that matter most to communities of color, more along the lines of a social movement like the civil rights movement than a conventional political party.

“It has to be voter registration and education 365 days a year in these communities,” Hamm said.

While some commentators insist that Murphy was hurt by the appearance of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on his behalf, Hamm thinks it may have saved him. “If Murphy does pulls it out, I would actually credit that visit from Senator Bernie Sanders for the win because it showed Murphy was making some effort to reach out to progressives,” Hamm said.

It is New Jersey’s urban centers made up of neighborhoods composed of people of color and immigrant households that were most hard hit by the pandemic who were most likely to be part of the essential workforce for whom working remotely from home was not an option.

The broad consensus of conventional political wisdom is that the Democratic Party must now chase after the white suburban independents voters that voted for Biden but in both the Virginia and New Jersey races for Governor backed the Republican.

But at the same time there’s a lack of appreciation of the political potential of the state’s low wage working families, a multi-racial cohort that’s mostly white but also includes a significant percentage of people of color. These are the voters that would stand to benefit significantly from President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda that includes extending the expanded Child Tax Credit that is expected to cut childhood poverty by 45 percent.

Here in New Jersey, we have 1.42 million of these voters, poor and low-income voters, according to a research paper done for the Poor People’s Campaign that is co-chaired by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. According to the PPC’s “Waking the Sleeping Giant: Poor and Low-Income Voters in the 2020 Election” this cohort, 58 million voters, made up more than one-third of last year’s electorate.

“There were another 22 million low-income voters who were registered, but did not vote, meaning that out of the 215 million registered voters in 2020, 80 million — or 37% — were eligible low-income voters,” the PPC reported.

“We also found that the reason poor and low-income voters participate in elections at lower rates is not because they have no interest in politics, but because politics is not interested in them,” according to the PPC. “They do not hear their needs and demands from candidates or feel that their votes matter. They are less likely to vote because of illness, disability, or transportation issues, not to mention the rise of voter suppression laws, all systemic barriers rather than individual failures.”

In New Jersey there are 400,000 of these voters that were registered but did not vote in the Biden/Trump contest. There was a similar number missing from the 2020 balloting in Virginia as well.

Keep that six-figure number in mind as we spend the next weeks fixating on every provisional and absentee ballot.

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small, who just won re-election, said the state’s low voter turnout produced “shock waves up and down the state” that should be “a wake-up call for Democrats to get back to the basics.”

Small said that had beltway Democrats been able to deliver on President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, particularly on infrastructure, it could have boosted their performance. “You would have had the announcements of projects that were getting underway—you got to produce,” he said. “It’s one thing to run for office as a candidate and tell voters what you are going to do. It’s another thing to actually govern.”

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One response to “A Wake-up Call for New Jersey Democrats”

    To say, I love your columns, is an understatement.
    True, lower income residents might not vote because of illness and all
    of your listed reasons. There is also the fatigue factor. They are just
    plain exhausted. When speaking to a working wife, I was told that
    she has to help her two children with their homework. When her
    husband comes home from work, he is too tired to even eat.

    In regard to polls being wrong, I kept saying, the polling is true
    IF the voters vote. Then I think better brains than mine
    will figure it out. I guess they didn’t.
    My hope now is that these better brains listen to , respect, and
    genuinely improve the lives of all people who are in need of
    enjoying happy, successful lives.

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